A Vancouver Island woman seeking a provincewide ban on indigenous smudging ceremonies in schools told a Nanaimo courtroom that her daughter was told by a teacher that it was “rude” not to participate.
Servatius, an evangelical Christian, is claiming her daughter’s rights to religious freedom were infringed on when she was forced to participate in a Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremony at Port Alberni’s John Howitt Elementary School in September 2015.
Servatius alleges that her daughter was “unwillingly subjected to being fanned by smoke” during the ceremony and that her daughter expressed a desire to leave the room but was told by her teacher that it would be “rude” to opt out, according to court documents. The mother claims her daughter experienced “anxiety, shame and confusion as a result” of the ceremony, accuses the school district of breaching its duty of neutrality and is seeking a court-ordered ban on the cultural practice in schools across B.C.
On Nov. 19, Servatius told B.C. Supreme Court that on the day of the smudging ceremony, her daughter was told by her teacher that it was “disrespectful” for her to opt out of the event even though she felt uncomfortable.
“My child is not a child that is going to want to be rude to anybody. She is told to be respectful of adults,” Servatius said. “[My daughter] was put in a position with an authority figure that was telling her that it would be disrespectful if she was not part of it and she was told to sit down.”
According to court documents, the school provided students with a letter explaining that Nuu-chah-nulth smudging ceremonies would take place in classrooms and that students would “hold onto cedar branches” and that they would be “smudged.” The letter does not provide dates for when the ceremonies were to take place. Servatius said her daughter never got such a letter but that once she read it, she discussed the ceremony with her children and told them not to worry as they would not be participating.
She said didn’t have any “intention” of belittling the beliefs of First Nations people.
“I believe that what they described in the letter and what my daughter described is very much a spiritual or religious thing that is happening and I do believe and I know, in my beliefs, that God is the one true God and we are not to pray to or have a type of ceremony to any other god or other beings,” Servatius said.
Servatius also told the court that the ceremony hasn’t changed her beliefs or impacted her daughter’s beliefs, but it has affected her as a parent and had an impact on the family.
“It didn’t change the way that I am living my life or my children living their life believing in God, but it did change what that day looked like,” she said. “We sat down, we talked about and we prayed about it and we had a discussion about … their feelings and why they felt that.”
Later in the day, Sherri Cook, a Nuu-chah-nulth educator who helped oversee the smudging ceremonies, was cross-examined by Servatius’s legal counsel, Jay Cameron of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. Cook told the court that First Nations culture is not a religion but a way of life for her and her people.
“Our culture is not a religion and I am deeply hurt that I am even sitting here today,” she said.
Cook said there were a few smudging ceremonies performed in classrooms on the day in question, that they lasted between 15-20 minutes, that they were all similar in nature and that the smoke was “strong” at times. She also said she didn’t receive any complaints, particularly from either Servatius or her daughter, before, during or immediately after the ceremony.
“She did not bring that to my attention…” Cook said. “If I was clear on how the student was feeling and how the family felt I would have made other accommodations. I have done it in the past. I have put students in the library to get caught up on homework while we did cultural teaching in class in other circumstances.”
Cook explained that she comes from a family with a “long line” of chiefs, that her grandparents “lost” 21 grandchildren to the residential school system and that her mother has “lost of all her culture” because of a colonial system that forced her to believe in a God.
“Because of my history and because of my family, I would never put a human, let alone a child in a situation where they are uncomfortable because I know personally, all too well, how my family was forced to go to residential school,” Cook said.
The school district disputes the claims made by Servatius. A teacher began giving evidence late Tuesday afternoon and the case will continue Wednesday, Nov. 20, at the Nanaimo Courthouse.
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